The extraordinary life of the 1920s Lady Gaga


She was said to walk around Venice at night with her pet cheetahs, naked but for a fur cloak: Luisa Casati was both an eccentric and a pioneer, the author of a new biography tells Fiona Macdonald.

In April 1917, three years into World War 1, Pablo Picasso attended a dinner hosted by the wealthy heiress Marchesa Luisa Casati in Rome. “It was so preposterous a contrast to the shell-shocked Paris that Picasso had recently left that he retained a precise visual memory of it for the rest of his life,” writes Judith Mackrell in her new book The Unfinished Palazzo. “Forty years later he could still recall the footmen in their 18th-Century livery who’d thrown copper filings onto the dining-room fires in order to turn the flames green; the massive boa constrictor that had lounged in golden coils on a polar bear skin rug… and above all, the startling appearance of Luisa herself, dressed in a pearl-embroidered gown with a stiff Elizabethan ruff and a neckline that plunged to her navel.”

Born in Milan in 1881 and orphaned at the age of 15, Luisa Casati was to become a figure shrouded in legends as elaborate as the clothes she wore. Almost pathologically shy, she had a menagerie of pets, which included a boa constrictor she wore around her neck, white peacocks trained to perch on her windowsills and a flock of tame albino blackbirds dyed different colours to match the themes of her parties. She commissioned the costume designer of the Ballets Russes to create ever more outrageous outfits, notably one made of tiny electric lightbulbs that short-circuited and gave her an electric shock so powerful it forced her into a backward somersault. And she was fascinated by the occult, always carrying a crystal ball and collecting wax replicas of herself, including one that was life-sized with a wig made from her own hair: when hosting dinner, she would sit the figure next to her and in the dim candlelight her guests struggled to make out which was the real Luisa.

Casati was physically striking, enhancing her features in an unusual way, as a 2003 profile in The New Yorker described. “The Marchesa was exceptionally tall and cadaverous, with a head shaped like a dagger and a little, feral face that was swamped by incandescent eyes. She brightened their pupils with belladonna and blackened their contours with kohl or India ink, gluing a two-inch fringe of false lashes and strips of black velvet to the lids,” wrote Judith Thurman in a feature accompanied by sketches by Karl Lagerfeld, a fan of Casati. “She powdered her skin a fungal white and dyed her hair to resemble a corona of flames… Her contemporaries couldn’t decide if she was a vampire, a bird of paradise, an androgyne, a goddess, an enigma, or a common lunatic.”

Artistic license

Yet Casati was not simply a flamboyant eccentric, as Mackrell reveals in her book. Her parties – and the costumes she wore for them – were choreographed performances rather than just society events, and she aimed to be ‘a living work of art’. Casati “straddled the period of belle époque decadence and early modernism, in terms of the art that she appreciated, in terms of the way that she wanted to present herself,” Mackrell tells BBC Culture. Ezra Pound immortalised her peacocks in his epic poem The Cantos and the photographer Man Ray described her as “a Surrealist version of the Medusa” after she wouldn’t stop moving in a sitting for him – Casati so loved his blurry portrait, in which she had three pairs of eyes, that she sent it to all of her friends, including her lover Gabriele d’Annuzio.

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